Film Review: Phantom Lady (1944)

Also known as: Condemned to Hang (working title)
Release Date: January 28th, 1944
Directed by: Robert Siodmak
Written by: Bernard C. Schoenfeld
Based on: Phantom Lady by Cornell Woolrich
Music by: Lester Horton, Hans J. Salter
Cast: Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Aurora Miranda, Thomas Gomez, Fay Helm, Elisha Cook Jr.

Universal Pictures, 87 Minutes

Review:

“[to Carol, as he is led back to his prison cell] Oh, if you feel like a train ride, visit me sometime. I’m getting a new address tomorrow. A big country estate on the Hudson. On a clear day you can see New Jersey.” – Scott Henderson

I am a pretty big fan of Robert Siodmak’s film-noir pictures like Criss Cross, The Killers and Conflict. But up until this point, I hadn’t seen Phantom Lady, which I must say is his best noir picture of the bunch.

This was a breathtaking movie in several aspects.

To start, the cinematography was incredible and I don’t want to say that lightly. The sequence in the film where Kansas is following the bribed bartender through the dark city streets is mesmerizing and gritty. It’s frankly enchanting, especially to those who appreciate the noir visual style or what came before it in German Expressionist movies.

While Siodmak has a great eye, this may be his best looking and most visually refined motion picture. From a cinematography, lighting and shot framing standpoint, this stands above most other noir films, which is pretty impressive, as the genre’s look is typically well crafted and executed superbly, regardless of directors, cinematographers or studios.

Another way that this film is breathtaking is in its building of tension and suspense. Even though you find out who the real killer is well before the film’s conclusion, it’s the knowing who he is that makes you fear for the heroine’s life. Franchot Tone and Ella Raines really kill it in their scenes together and once you get to the point where Raines’ Kansas realizes the mortal danger she’s in, it’s almost soul crushing.

Additionally, Ella Raines, herself, was breathtaking. She isn’t the top billed star in the movie but she was absolutely the star of this picture. She carried the film on her back, showed how great her acting chops were and made you care for her and her objective.

She’s not a femme fatale, in fact, she was the polar opposite and that kind of made this movie work in a way that isn’t the noir standard. She’s a heroic but gentle character that only wants justice for the man she cares about and for the victims of the killer. Plus, she’s simply stunning. Ella Raines’ Kansas is what rappers call a “dime piece”.

This is a wonderful movie. It’s what I wish most film-noir pictures could live up to. It’s head and shoulders above the standard and being that it came out pretty early in the genre’s run, it helped set the stage for all the films after it. And while it doesn’t check off all the film-noir boxes, it represents the style well, especially in regards to the look of the picture and the visual flourish that Robert Siodmak employed.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: The Killers, This Gun for Hire, Criss Cross and Suspect.

Film Review: Brute Force (1947)

Release Date: June 30th, 1947
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Richard Brooks, Robert Patterson
Music by: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford, Sam Levene, Ella Raines, Charles McGraw (uncredited)

Universal Pictures, 98 Minutes

Review:

“[to Captain Munsey] That’s why you’d never resign from this prison. Where else whould you find so many helpless flies to stick pins into?” – Dr. Walters

Brute Force was directed by Jules Dassin, who did a hamdful of noir pictures, all of them pretty interesting in their own regard. He always brought a sense of authenticity and realism to his pictures. This one is unusual, as it takes place in a prison and the only time we really leave the confines of the cold walls and steel bars is through flashbacks of life before incarceration.

The film starts off with a bang, as we are treated to ominous shots of the prison and a pounding yet beautiful score by Miklós Rózsa. The whole vibe in the first few shots reminds me a lot of the experience of playing the first Batman: Arkham Asylum video game, except shown in a film-noir visual style.

Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn both star in this and both actors are absolutely magnificent. Lancaster plays a prisoner that wants to escape, as his wife is dying of cancer. Cronyn plays the head prison guard and truly is the embodiment of evil, as he is a power hungry maniac ruling over the men in the penitentiary with a strong arm and a heavy club.

Ultimately, I thought that this film would defy the morality censors of the time but the old adage that crime doesn’t pay is still made very apparent in this picture. I wouldn’t say that the film has a predictable ending and for something from the 1940s it has a much harder edge than  you might expect. The big finale is especially satisfying for those wanting a film-noir with serious gravitas and without fear of pushing the envelope too far.

The characters are well written with diverse personalities that make each one stand out in their own way. The camaraderie between the prisoners feels genuine and you care about Lancaster’s criminal crew more intimately than you would background players in other films from this era.

The movie is well shot with nice cinematography by William Daniels, who also worked on the underrated Lured, as well as Naked City, which was also directed by Jules Dassin. He gave the prison life, even if it felt dead, cold and overbearing.

Brute Force was a surprise for me. I expected something fairly decent with Dassin at the helm and with Lancaster and Cronyn in front of the camera. What I experienced was something much better than the norm with bigger balls than the 1940s typically allowed on the silver screen.

Rating: 8/10